Latina Heritage

“What Are You?” A Mixed Kid Answers

“What are you?” my friend’s nephew was asked. He is Peruvian and African American.

I’ve been asked this, too. A lot. In fact, mixed kids report being asked this quite a bit. Their skin is brown, but their eyes are blue. Or their hair isn’t what people expect, given their bone structure. I sound white, but look vaguely indigenous. I have been assumed to be Chinese, Navaho, Mexican, and European. I’m actually Guatemalan-American, descended from basically Brits and Mayans.

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Me at five or so

Born in Iowa, my Guatemalan side stood out there. I was the only brown kid in my class, maybe in my school. The town was small enough that my Guatemalan dad was a bit of a celebrity. I never heard a cruel word about my parents’ marriage, nor my permanent tan. When I got to Texas, I was seen differently. Latinxes thought I spoke Spanish, which I didn’t. But more than once, a light kid insulted immigrants from south of Texas, not realizing that I was the child of one. I was first asked “What are you?” at church, another time in a job interview, and many times since.

Admittedly, the question is dehumanizing. Along with “Where are you from?” since mostly, we mash-ups in the US would say “Here!” But, you know what, I don’t mind it the way I used to. I think most askers are trying to open a new folder in their brains and aren’t sure what to call it. Undoubtedly, other askers are trying to fit the mixed person into a box that carries assumptions and stereotypes, but the people I’ve run into are mainly curious. They’re often intrigued when they find out my background and think it’s cool. If we lived in Brazil, we could visit three states that actually designate a holiday, June 27, as the day to celebrate “mestizos,” or mixed folks.

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It’s not as easy for every mixed person out there, though. Many speak of taunting coming from both sides — name-calling, ostracizing, and the implication that they aren’t “black enough” or “Korean enough” or whatever-enough to be part of the community. Barack Obama was criticized for marking Black on the 2010 census because he his half white and half black. His choice shows that he knows he is perceived as black, and therefore, is living the experience of a black man, despite his mother’s being white.

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Mixed people don’t always admit their mixed-ness, and for good reason. Before 1967, when the Supreme Court cleared the way for two people to marry regardless of race, it could be damaging to reveal a mixed bloodline. In overtly racist areas, the stigma of having a black ancestor could threaten livelihoods and even lives. Also, the US census only starting offering the choice to check multiple race boxes in 2000. Statistics show an increase in mixed kids in this century partly because it’s now possible to report it.original

On the other hand, mixed marriages and mixed kids are more noticeable now than ever. The famous royals, Harry and Meghan, aren’t alone. We probably are experiencing an increase in the real number of multi-racial people in the USA.  The UK shows rises as well.

The up-side is that we mixed kids tend to grow up appreciative of cultural variety and are fluent in more than one way of being. We live the truth that our parents’ human-ness is the same, regardless of race. Some of us are bi-lingual, and some grew up in two faith traditions. It’s natural to look at us as symbols of harmony among all peoples.

Symbols, maybe, but we aren’t the solution to ending racism forever. If only. For that, we need to work on many fronts for years to come, including emphasizing how artificial all divisions really are.

But let’s celebrate our multi-ness and the bravery of our parents. Let’s teach people to say, “What’s your background?” if they’re curious and not intending to insult. Let’s enjoy the creativity and flexibility of mind that mixed folks add to this world.

And when it comes to answering the question, “What are you?”, as my friend and I said that day about her nephew, in unison, “Tell them you’re a human being.”

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Latina Heritage

Thank you, sociologist Jessica M. Vasquez, for challenging “whitening”

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Lucy and Desi, a bi-cultural couple I saw on TV as a kid (in re-runs in the 70’s)

When my Guatemalan father started dating my Anglo mother, a man nudged him and said, “¿Mejorando la rasa, eh?” or “Bettering the race, huh?”

The comment made little sense to me when Dad told the story. If white skin is some sort of club, then my dad can’t be in it no matter whom he marries, and I wouldn’t qualify either. Yet, I am lighter-skinned than he is and my kids are lighter still, since their father is white. Also, I’m pretty Americanized, my kids even more so. None of this changes my father’s skin color or mine, but I’m starting to grasp what the man was getting at: whitening.

This “whitening” business assumes a lot:

  1. That marrying a lighter-skinned person is a “step up,” socially
  2. That marrying an American (specifically an Anglo-American) means undergoing total cultural assimilation
  3. That Anglo-American culture is better than Latino culture
  4. And of course: that white is better than deeper skin tones

Sadly, this involves some shame on the part of this man for his own culture and color, unless he was joking. True, my dad relayed the incident with a laugh, but I didn’t get the idea that the man was winking at a by-gone attitude. My strong impression was that this man was congratulating my father on winning the heart of a light-skinned American woman. Make no mistake, my mother is a catch. She’s smart, positive, musical, socially conscious, and energetic, but these weren’t the qualities she was being admired for in this “bettering the race” comment. The comment was prompted by her nationality and by the low melanin levels she inherited from British ancestors.

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Me, Mom, and Dad in July, 2017

The remark revealed prejudice, but it also revealed assumptions about the results of inter-racial marriage. According to the whitening model, my dad was lucky to marry an Anglo-American because now he could act white, live white, and have kids who did the same.

My reaction to that? 😕 (confused face) and 🤦 (face palm).

Here’s the thing. Though my dad became a citizen and learned to arrive on time, sing “Happy Birthday,” and shovel snow, he remains a proud Latino. My mother enjoys her American culture, but also recalls her two years in Guatemala with great fondness. She drapes walls with Guatemalan weavings, sings Spanish love songs, and makes sure the TV bundle includes fútbol channels. Much about my childhood was American, especially in 1970’s Iowa, but Spanish lullabies, Spanish Scrabble games, and my dad’s voiced observations on both cultures were ever-present. Living white was never the goal.

Nowadays, most people realize that “whitening” oversimplifies and misrepresents the bi-cultural experience. Naturally, Latin@-Anglo families live out a range of experiences, from whitening to mixing to browning. Sociologist Jessica M. Vasquez identifies four categories for inter-racial family styles in her article, “The Whitening Hypothosis Challenged: Bi-culturalism in Latino and Non-Hispanic White Intermarriage.” Thank you!

Vasquez interviewed 28 people and observed these family styles:

  1. Leaning white
  2. Everyday bi-culturalism (casual mixing of cultures)
  3. Selective blending (deliberate incorporation of desired aspects of each culture)
  4. Leaning Latino

Vasquez emphasizes that these are nodes on a spectrum, with real-life families not fitting neatly into any one category. I see my family shuttling up and down this list within my lifetime and within decades. For example, I’d say we started out leaning white, with Dad learning English and attending a Protestant church.

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Can you flick the hollow spool onto the stick? (capirucho)

Later, my parents became representatives of international flavor in my hometown, putting on presentations about Guatemala. Mom started teaching Spanish to me at this time, and I became aware of an everyday biculturalism. When we moved from Iowa to Texas, we tuned into Spanish TV stations and easily found foods like tamales, but eschewed the Latin world’s narrower roles for women. This slid us toward selective blending. I can’t say we truly leaned Latino except when Balcárcel family visited. For that day, we’d do everything the Latin way, playing marimba music, dancing, gesturing more, and speaking mostly Spanish, depending on which relatives came and how long they’d been in the States. When I married, our new family leaned white. I bought our boys soccer balls and had my parents teach them Spanish, but our home was basically Anglo — a little alternative, with vegetarian meals and a compost bucket, but Anglo. Had I married a Latino, I’m guessing we would have leaned Latino, but I married an Anglo man. I didn’t consciously set out to do this, but my high school wasn’t diverse, and I married a classmate at age 20. College might have had more men of color, but I was a newlywed and didn’t notice. My graduate school was almost entirely white.

My sons are now in their 20’s, and one enjoys learning languages. Arabic, Mandarin, Twi . . . you name it! I hope his facility with languages was helped by early exposure to Spanish. In any case, I see him socializing with an international group of acquaintances. I wouldn’t be surprised if he dated a woman of color or married one. If so, I’ll be curious to see how they build their bi-cultural home. Marrying white is okay too, as is not marrying at all. I just hope he’ll always be pleased to own his bi-cultural heritage.

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buying pan dulce with my half-sister

I have this same wish for myself. As I age, I find that I want to brush up on my Spanish and note the details of my dad’s childhood. I’m playing chords he taught me on the guitar. I love my extended Anglo family, and I grew up with them, but I want to balance myself and not lose my Latina-ness.

About ten years ago, I learned that I have a half-sister in Guatemala. Azucena is a feisty, sensitive, intelligent, lovely woman. Though we need Google translate to communicate, we are getting to know each other. In her, I’m finding another link to my heritage and more reasons to keep Guatemala in my daily consciousness and in my heart.

Check out Vasquez’s full article! It goes into even more interesting places.
Reference: Vasquez, Jessica. 2014. “The whitening hypothesis challenged: Biculturalism in Latino and non-Hispanic white intermarriage,” Sociological Forum 29 (2): 386-407.

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Latina Heritage

So yeah, I Oughtta be Fluent in Español

My dad speaks Spanish. My mom speaks Spanish. My second son speaks it pretty well. So what’s my problem? Why is my Spanish –let’s just say it– pathetic?

Nowadays, bilingual parents know the value of immersing kids in both languages. That wasn’t true in the 1970’s when I was born. Parents were told that using two languages confused babies and toddlers, causing significant language delays. The smart tactic of code-switching was seen as a deficit rather than a strength. (I wish I were kidding.)

More mundane, my Dad was busy learning English during my youngest years. Born as a Spanish-speaking Guatemalan, he was strict with himself as he tried to keep Spanish to a minimum in order to immerse himself in English. He watched Sesame Street, listened to co-workers, read newspapers. It worked. He passed his GED during his second year in the USA and went on to finish college and become –wait for it– an English teacher!

Mom speaks Spanish, but English is her first language. During her time in the Peace Corps, her Spanish zoomed from book-learned to fluent. Once home, though, her urgent project was to help her new husband master English.

 

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Parents with baby Rebecca

My parents didn’t leave Spanish totally behind. They sang love songs to each other and children’s songs to me. They spoke español as a grown-up code that would let them talk over my head, which made me listen closer. They even tried to teach me Spanish out of a book when I was nine. It was too late. Not too late to learn, but too late to absorb the language in that miraculous way that babies do. Plus, they kept speaking to me in English.

I took Spanish classes in school. My teacher heard my last name and hoped I would excel. I did my best, but I worked for those A’s. In fact, my upcoming novel includes a scene based on this experience. I took Spanish in college as well. By twenty, I reached my Spanish fluency zenith.

It dwindled from there. Though I don’t feel guilty about not knowing more español, I do wish I could read Spanish writers and converse with fellow Latinxes effortlessly. Life would be more fun. I would get my dad’s puns. My Duolingo app makes sure I’ll never forget the word for apple, but it doesn’t go far enough. I could take a class, and I’ve been invited to a bi-lingual “talking group,” but I haven’t arranged my schedule to fit those in.

The truth is that even if I learn a lot more, I won’t be fluent. My bi-lingual cousins will always speak more English than I speak Spanish. I could get better. A lot better. But I’ve decided I’m okay with my Spanish “como tourista.” Bi-linguality isn’t a test I’ve failed. It’s very cool, but it’s not going to be me unless I work harder than I want to or move to Spain.

I admire all the bi- and multi-lingual folks out there. I toast you and your awesomeness! For myself, I’m a little sad that I can’t do that thing you do. I’ll still listen to marimba music and make homemade tortillas once in while. I’ll listen to my parents sing those romantic love songs.

Even when I miss most of the lyrics, their meaning comes across just fine. Love jumps the language barrier. Like it did for my parents back in Guatemala in the 1960’s, as they fell in love in two broken tongues.

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